Rory Cellan-Jones

Digital Britain - who foots the bill?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 19 Apr 09, 20:29 GMT

Everybody who was anybody in Britain's digital industries was there. The bosses of BT, Virgin Media and Universal Music mingled with the likes of Stephen Fry and Feargal Sharkey. Oh, and the prime minister and three senior ministers turned up too. But did the Digital Britain summit at the British Library on Friday take us anywhere further down the road to, well, Digital Britain?

Gordon Brown at Digital Britain summit

I was at the event for a couple of hours, before rushing way to cover a much bigger story, the end of the Pirate Bay trial. But nothing I saw at the event - or read about afterwards - convinced me that we were much further advanced in deciding what must be the biggest issue at the heart of Lord Carter's forthcoming report on our digital future. Namely, who's going to pay to build a next-generation broadband network which reaches every corner of Britain?

Sure, there were more than enough rousing calls for a new age of digital wonders, where every home would be able to host live video conferences with the doctor, where every child would be given the skills to build Britain's rival to Twitter or YouTube and make us a world-leading knowledge economy.

Before I'd even arrived at the British Library, one technology company was offering me the chance to speak to one of its executives at the summit about the exciting possibilities that lay ahead if Britain invested in the high speed internet.

"With a high bandwidth connection just imagine what UK citizens could do...", the e-mail began. I replied, asking whether this IT services business was a)planning to invest in the building of this new Jerusalem, b)hoping that state aid would do the job? The company beat a hasty retreat, making it plain that this was one area it would rather not discuss.

The conference started with the prime minister comparing the digital revolution we are now experiencing with the industrial revolution, and insisting "we must invest or we will fall behind." That investment, he went on to explain, would not only be in skills and education but in the technical infrastructure required to make Britain ready for the next stage in the development of the global economy. But I wasn't clear who "we" meant - the market or the government?

After I'd left, Lord Mandelson took to the stage and appeared to go further than Gordon Brown in hinting at the possibility of state intervention. He mused on whether we could be comfortable with a situation where only half of British homes would get super-fast broadband in the next few years, and, when asked about the possibility of public investment, said that was a "possibility". Mind you, from the accounts I've read, he made it clear that the governemnt would much prefer to leave it to the market.

That, of course, means BT and Virgin Media. While each of those firms has been talking up their plans to roll out fibre networks to parts of the UK over the next couple of years, neither is at all keen to move beyond the territory they've sketched out for those networks. That means half the country will be left out of this brave new digital future - unless new money can be found.

While BT welcomed Ofcom's move a few weeks back to encourage fast broadband investment with light-touch regulation, the company seems, if anything, to have become even more cautious about promising more investment. It believes it has gone as far as it can to bet billions (ok, about £1bn) on rolling out fibre, without antagonising its nervous shareholders.

Its message at the summit, as voiced by its chief executive Ian Livingston, was that the economic case for fibre to the home was "not proven", and that it wasn't clear that consumers really wanted high speeds.

Away from the summit, BT has been spinning vigorously about broadband. Its message? Britain hasn't fallen behind its rivals - indeed in terms of take-up, availability, and price, we compare well with most major economies.

At this point mischievous journalists will mention the two words bound to make a BT executive's blood boil - South Korea. The nation that has provided 100Mps broadband to much of its population with little fuss is often cited in articles decrying Britain's poor performance in the speed tables.

But BT will then point out that in Korea, and in just about every other place that is investing heavily in fibre-to-the-home, government money is playing a big part.

BT - or Virgin for that matter - isn't saying it out loud but the message to the government is clear. If you really want us to build Digital Britain, you're going to have to pay for it.


  • Comment number 1.

    The reality is this, where there is money to be made for shareholders, speeds of 40Meg and faster will appear over the next 3 years.

    Where there is not, then at present we seem to be in a cycle of annual reviews until which ever government is in power at the time, decides the UK is at a competitive disadvantage for businesses.

    Speaking as someone who was at the full day, it would seem that there was a feeling of too much talk of the plumbing from the room as a whole, i.e. because Digital Britain is digital TV/radio, broadband infrastructure, mobile, legislation about copyright that the actual infrastructure going into detail/debate was difficult.

    One thing totally overlooked in the talk of digital inclusion, was that some people may have seen the benefits, but because of the downsides as they perceive them they have chosen to not partake.

    For areas with no prospect of true next generation services, just hope someone wins the lottery locally and uses the money to bank roll a decent local solution.

  • Comment number 2.

    Oh yes, all the stakeholders were there, which of course doesn't include us, the ordinary consumer, just those parties lobbying to carve up Digital Britain to their own profit and advantage.

  • Comment number 3.

    In reponse to comment (2), the general consumer had little representation, in an ideal world the summit would go on a tour and invite communities and small businesses along, i.e. those people who really use the services, rather than those who provide the services.

    Perhaps if Rory fancies a UK tour in 2009 thats an idea.

    One problem is the report title, Digital Britain means many will assume this is something to do with Digital TV and Radio (which it is) and not realise it also includes things like their telephone/broadband servcies.

  • Comment number 4.

    I'm going to be selfish here for once, and most people will agree that this is not like me.

    Although I live in a small village my broadband connection is reliable and as fast as I really need, though if it was faster I wouldn't complain.

    Personally I see no see for 40MB let alone 100MB speeds, doubt if they will get to anyone but urbanites, and think that there is no case for "Digital Britain" to be funded by the taxpayer.

    If the latter course were taken it would fall on pensioners and the lower paid to finance the well-off to provide a servce the can well afford for themselves.

    If cabling up the whole of the UK to superfast speeds is not commercially viable then TS. Not speeding up our lives still further would not be the end of the world, and would mean zip for UK competitiveness.

    If you want South Korean broadband, pay for it yourself.

  • Comment number 5.

    Australia will have a more advanced 21st century economy than the UK before too much longer.

    The case is clear, the money can be found, it is rumoured to be £10-20B which is a after all a drop in the ocean compared to the hundreds of billions handed over to our banks 'to keep the economy moving'

    re: badgercourage No. 4
    I would be happy to pay for it, but there are no plans for a 21st century network in my area at all, not ever, so from a very small sample (my household) which appears to be the only sample available at the moment, people would be willing to pay for it, if it could be provided to them.

  • Comment number 6.

    You're only as fast as your slowest link on the internet.
    It doesn't matter what speed I have a connection, if the place I'm downloading from is only allowing me to connect at 1/64th of my maximum throughput anyway.

    As long as I'll be able to stream a 720p video from iPlayer when your guys flick the HD switch in the next few days, thats all the speed I need so far. We aren't talking gigabytes of data.

    The biggest problem for Digital Britain isn't speed, its ISPs setting up their connections with high contention ratios, packet shaping, deep packet sniffing in order to serve adverts that snoop on the customer and limiting bandwidth, charging £1 per GB after that cap. Thats the biggest problem we'll face in this country.

  • Comment number 7.

    What is happening about the great digital TV switch over? Recent holidays in Wales, Cornwall and the South Coast have shown there isn't yet a usable digital signal in many places.
    When several million people find they are left with no TV at all, even if it's only when they are on holiday, do you suppose they are going to be happy?

  • Comment number 8.

    Up here in Shetland, when are we getting in on this super-fast, super-wide broadband game? Not in my life time, I doubt.

  • Comment number 9.

    There was a great comment towards the end from the BBC lady - paraphrasing 'never mind the pipes, where's the poetry?'

    Other countries - i.e. the USA - seem to have built huge new 'digital' industries whilst still having enormous swathes of the country without broadband. Mobile innovation is coming out of Africa.

    When the event's focus wasn't on pipes the 'debate' was dire because of who was speaking. No wonder Stephen Fry was bored. The true creatives were asking questions from the floor.

    I go into (at) the horrors on the platform here

  • Comment number 10.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 11.

    9. At 11:41am on 20 Apr 2009, paulcanning wrote:

    Sweet read.

    Unless, of course, you are BOFINS (Boring Old F...ellows (or a blonde market rate media talent) In Suits (or Slingbacks)

  • Comment number 12.

    Tech-Dode: You'll get super fast broadband when one of two things happen:
    - You pay what it costs to get it to Shetland,
    - You move somewhere cheaper.
    Surely you're not suggesting that the rest of us should subsidise your choice of an island lifestyle?

  • Comment number 13.

    Regarding people offering to pay, I've spoken to people that have actually offered to pay to upgrade their local exchange, but BT turned their offers down.

  • Comment number 14.

    We don't question that the government builds and pays for the roads, the internet is the new roads and we need government investment in this infrastructure to drive this forward.

    The argument that we don't need 100Mb is spurious because there are no services that need that much bandwidth. Of course there are no services because we don't have any customers for these services.

  • Comment number 15.

    I'm far from convinced we need more than 30-40 Mbps - for a start, many data centres have a 100 Mbps limit per ethernet port, shared among all server users. Push the speed up 5 fold, and you need to increase the number of servers, or would see the same kind of speed as at present.

    For those in Rural areas, there's actually a petition on the Number 10 site, requesting the government fund Fibre to the Cabinet (approx cost 5 billion), but making it a priority for Rural areas to get it first - remember that cities already have greater competition available (cable, LLU, 16 and 24 Mbps services).

    I cannot link to it, of course, as that may be removed, but it concerns the Digital Britain plans, putting data centres in areas other than the South East, which is already creaking - a Radio 4 show reported that no new datacentres can be up and running before the Olympics, because of (electric) power constraints.

    There would no doubt be some environmental benefits, working from home, and for small businesses outside the cities to be on a 'level playing field', as well as making the UK 'ready' for the upturn in the economy, in due course.

  • Comment number 16.

    Actually, seeing that there's a link in another blog to a Number 10 petition (about not closing down AM/FM radio), and given this is all about how fibre could be expanded for users across the UK, I'd like to point to another petition, which asks the Government to (1) review the Digital Britain report and consider distribution of data centres to parts of the UK outside the South East (a BBC R4 programme not many weeks ago reported that new data centres cannot be built inside the M25 as there are power supply problems until after the 2012 Olympics), and (2) fund FTTC (fibre to the cabinet) with Rural areas getting FTTC first.

    Please see the petition at

    I really hope the Government can see that for us to be "ready" when the economic upturn comes, having the infrastructure (in this case FTTC which will cost a fraction of fibre to the home/business) in place will allow the UK to "keep up" with the rest of Europe.


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